Richards v. Knuchel

Decision Date31 May 2005
Docket NumberNo. 04-588.,04-588.
Citation115 P.3d 189,327 Mont. 249,2005 MT 133
PartiesDanny S. RICHARDS, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. Karl KNUCHEL, Defendant and Respondent.
CourtMontana Supreme Court

For Appellant: Alexander (Zander) Blewett, III, and Kurt M. Jackson, Hoyt & Blewett, Great Falls, Montana.

For Respondent: Allan H. Baris, Moore, O'Connell & Refling, P.C., Bozeman, Montana.

Justice BRIAN MORRIS delivered the Opinion of the Court.

¶ 1 Appellant Danny S. Richards (Danny) appeals from an order entered by the Sixth Judicial District Court, Park County, dismissing his legal malpractice claim against Respondent Karl Knuchel (Karl) and ruling that his "lost" appeal would not have succeeded. We affirm.

¶ 2 Danny assigns as error the District Court's ruling that Karl did not commit legal malpractice when he failed to file a timely notice of appeal stemming from Danny's dissolution of his marriage. Danny also contends the District Court incorrectly determined that it, rather than the jury, should have decided the consequences of Karl's failure to timely file an appeal. Danny presents these issues separately, but the resolution of one follows naturally from that of the other.

PROCEDURAL AND FACTUAL BACKGROUND

¶ 3 The dissolution of Danny's marriage provides the underlying suit upon which he bases this malpractice action. Our decision in In re the Marriage of Richards, 2001 MT 183, 306 Mont. 212, 31 P.3d 1002, sets forth the details of the dissolution proceedings and subsequent appeals.

¶ 4 To summarize, Danny descended into his Bleak House reprising the role of John Jarndyce when he filed for divorce on October 3, 1997. Karl represented him through the process. The District Court held a trial and eventually adopted verbatim the proposed Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law and Decree of Dissolution submitted by Danny's former wife. The presiding judge issued the decree on November 14, 2000, and immediately recused himself. Danny's former wife served the Notice of Entry of Decree on November 17, 2000.

¶ 5 Danny timely filed a Motion to Reconsider on November 28, 2000, pursuant to Rule 52(d) and 59(d), M.R.Civ.P. A second judge assumed jurisdiction the next day and, after a series of hearings, eventually granted Danny's motion for a new trial on February 14, 2001, 76 days after Danny had filed his post-trial motion. Danny, believing he had won a valid order granting a new trial, failed to file a notice of appeal of the District Court's decree within the statutory 30-day time limit. See Rule 5(a)(4), M.R.App.P. Danny's former wife, however, appealed on the ground that the court's failure to rule on a motion for a new trial within 60 days had deprived it of jurisdiction to act. See Rule 52(d), M.R.Civ.P. We agreed that the District Court had erred when it granted Danny's motion for a new trial after the time to do so had expired. Richards, ¶ 12.

¶ 6 Danny filed a legal malpractice action against Karl after our decision in Richards. Danny asserted in his initial complaint that Karl negligently failed to file an appeal from the court's decree before the 30-day deadline had expired. Danny alleged that Karl's failure resulted in malpractice that caused the loss of his potentially successful appeal. Karl admitted in his answer that he negligently had allowed the deadline for filing a notice of appeal to expire, but denied that his failure to preserve Danny's right to appeal the dissolution decree caused any damages.

¶ 7 The first judge assigned to Danny's legal malpractice claim recused himself before discovery began and a second judge accepted jurisdiction. The second judge entered a scheduling order indicating that Karl had admitted committing legal malpractice in failing to effect the proper post-trial relief and/or appeal from the dissolution decree and, therefore, the court's initial determination would be whether Danny's post-trial relief and/or appeal would have proven successful. The second judge also extended discovery and ordered that Karl be deposed.

¶ 8 Karl admitted again during the deposition that he had committed legal malpractice by allowing the 30-day deadline to expire on Danny's right to appeal the court's decree of dissolution, but he contested causing any damages. Danny's counsel also asked Karl whether he had committed malpractice by failing to heed the opportunity presented by local Rule 8, Montana Sixth Judicial District Court Rules, to notify the judge regarding matters under advisement for more than 30 days. Karl admitted that he had committed legal malpractice by failing to notify the court that the 60-day period to rule had run on Danny's Motion to Reconsider. Karl attempted to revise his deposition testimony a month and a half later pursuant to Rule 30(e), M.R.Civ.P., to reflect his belief that the district court's local rule failed to impose a mandatory duty to notify the judge regarding matters under advisement longer than 30 days and, therefore, no malpractice had occurred.

¶ 9 Danny amended his complaint in response to Karl's admissions at the deposition to include a legal malpractice claim for allowing the 60-day period to run without notifying the court of the impending deadline. Karl's answer to Danny's second amended complaint admitted that he negligently had allowed the 30-day deadline for filing a notice of appeal to expire, but denied responsibility for the court's failure to issue a ruling before the expiration of the 60-day deadline. The second judge then recused himself from the case and a third judge assumed jurisdiction.

¶ 10 Danny next filed a brief contending that Karl's negligence prevented his successful post-trial motion and/or appeal. Danny also argued that the doctrine of judicial estoppel prevented Karl from denying the likely success of his appeal based upon Karl's repeated admission that he had committed legal malpractice in failing to prompt a response from the District Court within the 60-day time period or to file a notice of appeal within 30 days after the final judgment. In response, Karl filed a motion for partial summary judgment in which he argued that the local district court rule failed to impose a mandatory duty to notify the judge regarding matters under advisement for more than 30 days and that judicial estoppel did not prevent him from denying his liability or that the post-trial appeal would have been successful.

¶ 11 The District Court held a hearing on all pending motions and entered an order granting Karl's motion for partial summary judgment and denying Danny's motion. The District Court concluded that the local district court rule to contact the trial court regarding matters under advisement for more than 30 days did not impose a mandatory duty on Karl. The court further determined that judicial estoppel did not prevent Karl from taking a contrary legal position in a later legal malpractice claim after initially admitting liability. Finally, the court decided that Danny's lost appeal would have failed as a matter of law because the court's findings of fact and conclusions of law and decree of dissolution were not clearly erroneous. This appeal follows.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶ 12 We review a district court's grant of summary judgment de novo, applying the same evaluation under Rule 56, M.R.Civ.P., as the district court. Glacier Tennis Club at the Summit, LLC v. Treweek Constr. Co., Inc., 2004 MT 70, ¶ 21, 320 Mont. 351, ¶ 21, 87 P.3d 431, ¶ 21 (citations omitted). We review a district court's conclusions of law to determine whether they are correct. Pablo v. Moore, 2000 MT 48, ¶ 12, 298 Mont. 393, ¶ 12, 995 P.2d 460, ¶ 12.

DISCUSSION

¶ 13 Danny argues that Karl admitted liability both in his answer to Danny's complaint and in his deposition and, therefore, the District Court erred in granting summary judgment on the question of whether Karl committed legal malpractice. Danny also argues that the District Court incorrectly determined that his "lost appeal" from the court's dissolution decree would have failed. Danny contends that determining a lost appeal's success presents a question for the jury and not a question of law for the court to decide and that the trial court's decree of dissolution remains clearly erroneous.

¶ 14 To prevail in a legal malpractice claim, a plaintiff must establish each of the following elements: (1) that the attorney owed him a duty of care; (2) that the attorney breached this duty by failing to use reasonable care and skill; (3) that the plaintiff has suffered damages; and (4) that the attorney's conduct proximately caused the damages. Ereth v. Cascade County, 2003 MT 328, ¶ 17, 318 Mont. ¶ 355, 17, 81 P.3d 463, ¶ 17. Failure to establish damages proves fatal to an attorney malpractice action. Merzlak v. Purcell (1992), 252 Mont. 527, 529, 830 P.2d 1278, 1279.

¶ 15 We assume, based on his own admissions, that Karl owed a duty of care and breached it. Danny then must show that he suffered damages and that Karl's breach of duty proximately caused the damages. The dissent instead seeks to frame this Court's argument in the context of our decisions in Nehring v. LaCounte (1986), 219 Mont. 462, 712 P.2d 1329, and Massee v. Thompson, 2004 MT 121, 321 Mont. 210, 90 P.3d 394, where we held that a statutory violation may be considered as evidence of negligence even if the violation does not constitute negligence per se. The dissent maintains that by tacitly affirming the District Court's determination that Karl did not owe a duty to remind the court to timely rule on a pending motion we have held that no actionable breach of duty can arise from an attorney's failure to follow the local court rules.

¶ 16 Unlike statutes that restrict alcohol retailers from selling alcohol to minors and compel police officers to notify domestic abuse victims of their rights, which Nehring and Massee dealt with respectively, the local court ...

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